The Torah of Love

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June 1, 2003
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By Vanessa L. Ochs

The Committed Marriage by Esther Jungreis HarperSan Francisco: 2003 $24.95 288 pp
Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies by Rabbi Perry Netter Jewish Lights Publishing: 2002 $16.95 224 pp

Speeddating: A Timesaving Guide to Finding Your Lifelong Love by Yaacov and Sue Deyo HarperResource: 2003 $10.95 201 pp

Making a Successful Jewish Interfaith Marriage by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky with Joan Peterson Littman Jewish Lights Publishing: 2003 $16.95 176 pp

One side of my family inhabits the “black hat” world of the scrupulously observant. When those kinfolk were ready for marriage, they went on arranged shidduch dates. Their rabbis, teachers or family friends came up with promising potential partners for them to meet after the family was vetted for piety and financial stability. In this closed world, in a few dates and after some discussion, you, your family, and the matchmaker knew if you had found your bashert. The system worked efficiently and with much success because, sociologically speaking, the young people were, in theory, all on the same page: yeshiva or seminary educated, religiously observant, tied to their families, even to their cities of origin, like Brooklyn, Baltimore, or Jerusalem. The date was held in a public place like a hotel lobby, and common values and lifestyle were taken for granted. Not having to discuss how important having a Jewish home was on a ten point scale, you could get down to the business at hand: discerning your date’s middot, their attributes – like having a head for Torah learning or having aspirations for moral self-betterment – and measuring your level of physical attraction (yes, that counted as a factor).

I don’t want to idealize that world, as you could find it tough to get a match, even a date, were a shanda in the closet discovered, such as a sibling with a genetic disease or learning disability, a history of depression, a parent whose business floundered. I was relieved that I came from the side of the family that allowed its young to fall in love on their own. Still, those who inhabit the world of shidduch dating do have something few of us can resort to as we navigate through matters of the heart. They have a community that sees arranging and supporting the marriage of individuals as a corporate project.

Four new books attempt to play the role of guides that might mediate between the Torah of love and the real and complicated romantic predicaments we find ourselves in. (When my husband returned from a trip and saw Speeddating, by Yaacov and Sue Deyo and Divorce is a Mitzvah, by Perry Netter, on my reading table, he asked cautiously, “Is there something I should know about?”) These books are most successful in their demonstration of how Jewish wisdom can illuminate the murky situations of contemporary love lives. However wise the Bible and rabbinic literature might indeed be about relationships, as Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis writes in The Committed Marriage, it’s not easy to access information about loving, enduring relationships from the pages of Torah, and move it into our lives where it might direct and guide us. Typically, if we’re lucky, we may have witnessed Torah-inspired values, whether or not we can name them as such, in the lives of family members or friends who have influenced us, and it’s those lived examples of more ideal, more sacred ways of being human, that may guide our own behaviors when we’re entering and exiting relationships or building marriages and families.

In the speeddating phenomenon, which is taking place in cities around the world, men and women sign up to spend 7 minutes each with seven different potential dates in one evening. If both the man and woman indicate a desire to see each other again, the program’s organizers provide the relevant phone numbers. The concept originated as a respectful way for Jews to meet and date; it’s methodology draws from the world of shidduch dating, that is, having encounters not for the sake of casual relationships, but to determine efficiently if these two people should marry. One might think Speeddating, the book, was a guide to selling oneself in seven minutes, but it’s a much richer feast. While written for a general audience, the book unabashedly uses Jewish terminology throughout (does your date exude simcha, the capacity for joy and optimism? Does your date possess chesed, a generous lovingkindness?) As I have neglected to pass on any dating advice to either of my daughters other than “If you marry, marry Sephardic, so we can go to your in-laws’ seder and eat rice,” I can envision leaving this book around where they might find it.

Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide for Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies by Rabbi Perry Netter, will probably end up only in the hands of pastoral counselors and those who are divorcing or divorced, and that’s a shame. The rest of us, who might otherwise profit from Netter’s insights into how Jewish teaching and Jewish rituals can give us strength and insight as we traverse challenges in any intimate and loving relationship, will miss out. Netter, unlike those Jewish leaders who hold that marriage should be upheld at nearly all costs, discovers sources in Torah affirming that not all relationships should remain intact and not all marital problems have solutions. Divorce, he affirms, is a tragedy, but not a sin. Divorced himself, Netter writes with deep understanding of the psychological and personal factors that lead one to divorce, and with compassion, he provides concrete Jewish ways to experience the presence of God every step of the way, including how one breaks the news to children and friends.

Finally, any consideration of new Jewish books on families and love relationships would have to include one book on intermarriage. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, along with Joan Peterson Littman, offers Making a Successful Jewish Interfaith Marriage, a handbook chronicling the challenges many interfaith couples will face and offering advice for addressing the inevitable dilemmas. Much of the ground has been covered elsewhere in a growing body of literature concerning intermarriage. What makes this book distinctive is its stance: the authors hold that the Torah itself, in its attitudes toward the stranger, sets a model for including those who are “strangers” within the community, and embracing them with love and care. Thus Olitzky claims divine origins for the idea that intermarriage and intermarried families are not the end of the Jewish community, but rather “a potential gain” of people and talent.

If this body of literature has an impact, we will find Jews becoming more adept at using the language of Jewish wisdom to discern matters of the heart. While we still might trust our gut feelings, it helps to know those feelings have been wisely cultivated by an ancient tradition.

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